Eating out: Carry on couscous

Ayoush; 77 Wigmore Street, London, WI, 0171 935 9839. Open Mon-Sat 11am-11pm. Three-course meal about pounds 25. Service added at 12.5 per cent. Credit cards accepted
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The Independent Culture
THE FIRST TIME I was thrown out of a North African restaurant I blamed it on the Americans. I was a teenager on holiday in Tunisia with my girlfriend, and though our all-inclusive pounds 109 package deal included a specially-designed European menu of omelettes and pizzas, we decided that we really ought, at least once, to eat in a Tunisian restaurant.

I remember specifically the moustaches, the smell of mint and tobacco, the brik a l'oeuf (a round piece of thin pastry with a raw egg cracked into it and deep fried), a lamb meschoui so tender you could have eaten it in comfort within minutes of a quadruple wisdom tooth extraction, a spicy local rose, and the apologies of the waiter who approached the table and said:

"You must leave now. The Americans have bombed Tripoli."

"But we're not American," I explained. "We're English."

"The planes flew from England. Sorry, you must go."

And that was that. It seems Gaddafi was big mates with the Tunisian president and we had, in the course of the meal, become an embarrassment. Thanks to Maggie, innocent people died, and I never got to try the puddings.

Relations with most of North Africa being on an upturn these days, I booked a table at Ayoush in Wigmore Street confident that no diplomatic incident would endanger my meal. And yet it seems I am not destined to eat Tunisian at my leisure.

Ayoush is one of those places that flatters itself with a two hours per table policy and offers sittings either at seven o'clock or nine, explaining in advance that you will be ejected when the sand runs out. They learnt that nasty little trick from Momo, I suspect.

They learnt very little else. For while the Heddon Street original made North Africa trendy again by offering a bad fake of a colonial era, ex- pat Marrakech brothel, Ayoush is a good fake of a Hammamet hotel restaurant on a "Welcome The Guests" Ali Baba theme night. The subterranean dining- room, with its ethnic fabrics, oriental lamps and orange walls, is Disneyish in its fakery, and the staff (who are all, by the way, delightful) are dressed up to look like extras from Carry on Couscous. The place is meant, I suppose, to be souk-like, mellow and sultry, but the air-conditioning is so icy-cold that, from a theme point of view, it was more Danish than Tunisian. I felt like drinking acquavit and eating pickled herrings.

Sadly, there was nothing of the kind on the menu. "Do you have any North African roses?" I asked, planning, at least, to recapture adolescent days of cheap wine-drinking in hotter places. "No," the waiter said, very nicely, they didn't have any North African wine at all. So I ordered the only rose they did have, a French one. I've had worse. In Poland, I think it was.

Some of the food is North African, though. And it won't kill you. They do the famous brik, but tinned tuna doesn't add much to the dish. A bit studenty. The merguez are good, which is very unusual in London: thin and dark red and very peppery. It is lucky they are good, though, because the aijja with which they are served - a kind of eggy tomato sauce - tastes of nothing at all. Salade michwia, one of those brown auberginey glops you see all over the Middle East, was also very spicy, but the thudding house music is so loud your taste buds have their hands over their ears most of the time anyway.

The couscous was terrible: a huge pile of grain that soaked up all the lukewarm juice - thinly redolent of Heinz tomato soup - before it got to the table. There were large starchy pieces of what might have been sweet potato, three huge chunks of carrot and a piece of old mutton you could have played cricket with, except it was so hard it might have been dangerous.

Tagines, in general, are all about whipping off that terracotta wizard's hat to smells of cinnamon, garlic, saffron, orange- blossom and bulbous, fragrant lamb. Not here. They don't do a lamb one. They do chicken. In a sauce so acridly lemony that it makes your left eye twitch when you eat it. Watch out for small things that look like baby potatoes in the dim light. They turn out to be baby lemons - but you'll only find out after you've come round in the ambulance.

Apart from some stools and low chairs, the seating is on banquettes in eight-seater alcoves full of strangers. The problem is that these strangers steal the table before you get there - for it isn't wide enough to serve as an eating surface for both sides. If you recline on the banquettes you can't reach the table. Nor can you sit up in them if you are less than five foot nine.

My mother, with whom I was eating, is a little less than that and was somewhat miffed that her feet did not touch the floor. "These seats are designed for people who have very long legs," she pointed out, adding, I thought immortally: "That is not what North African people usually have." But then, what would a North African person be doing in Ayoush?